Saturday, September 23, 2006

On the first day of Ramadan

We didn't even know it had started until we got to the Ibn Battuta Mall and found all the food outlets closed. They must have spotted that moon last night. The BOY, with his usual forthright manner was asking all kinds of questions, including, "Who is the man that looks out for the moon?" and, "What happens if he falls asleep and misses it?"

So we shopped, taking in the new, unusual atmosphere. No people smoking or eating or drinking. Melodic, enchanting Arabian music lilting gently from the speakers. Westerners still dressed like they're on the beach....

Then we had lunch at home and decided to go and explore the Madinat Jumeirah, which is a huge shopping mall in the style of a traditional souk, with large hotels at either end, restuarants galore and man-made waterways all around, with Abras transporting people around the whole place. I'll leave it to the pictures below to convey the atmosphere and feel of the place, save to mention that with all the restaurants closed, it was really quiet, but in a good way.

It's another world. We also went to the public beach on the other side of the Burj Al Arab and watched 2 helicopters land on the heli-pad near the top, which was cool. The only thing about the beach was that it was quite dirty. There were cigarette ends by the million near the wall separating the beach from the road, and even a dirty nappy. I've heard that there are often men (sub-continental labourers who've never seen a western woman) who stand and stare at the acres of exposed female flesh, whilst engaging in a not-so-subtle game of pocket billairds. Things like this take the sheen of the place, but I think that's why a lot of people use the beach parks and clubs where you have to pay to get in. I think they look after them much better. Here's hoping, anyway!

Friday, September 22, 2006

The Sun Always Shines

It has since I arrived those many weeks ago. I haven't seen many clouds. There have been a couple of sand-storms and a bit of fog for a couple of mornings, but apart from that, it has shone all through every single day. It is hot, bright, unforgiving, but probably the primary reason we are able to live on this planet. You've heard the figures about how many nuclear bomb's-worth of energy that big ball of gas produces.

I was out in it for a bit today. We went for a little wander after an underwhelming brunch in Focaccia, an Italian restuarant in the Hyatt Regency on the Deira Corniche. Here is a picture of the Creek, looking across to the Bur Dubai side.

That big shiny thing in the sky (I know, terrible photography) is, of course, the sun. It belts down on this place for, I guess 99% of the daylight hours.

This is leading somewhere....

We were setting off this morning, and the WIFE remarked, "Why don't they use solar panels here?"

Good bloody question, my dear, and one which has crossed my mind. All that free, unlimited (well, maybe for 5 billion years) energy, and the powers that be here haven't thought of using it. I'm no expert, but surely they wouldn't have to waste too much prime real estate ground. They could put solar panels on top of every single building without spoiling their aesthetics, and supply a heck of a lot of juice for the 24/7 Air Conditioning. As it is, the sun heats the cold water, which is invariably stored in a roof-top tank, so you have a cold tap that runs hot and a hot tap that you don't need to heat up for about 5 months of the year. I suppose that saves a bit, but as I have previously alluded to, Dubai and the UAE are enormous consumers of resources. If this place was the size of the USA, we'd be nominating George Dubya Bush for honorary membership of Greenpeace. If it's not the AC, it's the flashy, colour-changing lights that seem to decorate every building with more than 10 storeys. So, what is the problem?

Is it maybe because we couldn't get charged for electricity that was produced by the sun? Who knows for sure? DEWA? Hmmm.

Oooh, the cynicism is starting to kick in, and I've not seen 2 months here.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Water, water everywhere...

Time for a grumble. I've been mainly positive up to now, making out that life in Dubai is perfect. Well, maybe not, but it's time to get something off my chest.

I read a statistic the other day. I can't remember where, probably in the local free tabloid (think the UK's Metro) called 7 Days or possibly Time Out Dubai. It stated that the average daily consumption of water in the UAE is 500 litres per person. That really is quite startling when you think about it. It's one of the highest rates, if not THE highest in the world. I started to think about my own contribution to this incredible figure: I drink maybe 2 litres a day, have a shower, go to the bog a few times, wash my dishes, etc., but 500 litres? Come on! Then I thought about it some more, and it started to make sense why this place uses so much. Driving around Dubai on a daily basis, you see sprinklers everywhere. There is grass, established and newly-planted, all over the place, and in the heat of the desert summer, it needs watering at least twice a day. Yes, sand is boring. Grass and greenery looks nice. So I kind of grudgingly accept it as being par for the course. Har-de-har. It's part of the whole experience here. You turn a blind eye to these excesses, and the liberal /environmental guilt is pushed to one side when you see the things that you see, and hear about some of the stuff that goes on. It's the price you pay for coming to a place like this. But then some things just push you too far.

On my daily drives around the vast suburban sprawl that is Springs, I often come across large puddles and streams of water flowing across the streets, and wonder where it's coming from. I now have my answer. Today I spotted a hired hand (gardener/maid/not sure?) hosing down the block-paved carport area to the front of a villa. I drove by slowly and watched as this person blithely ejected litres and gallons of water onto the paving, all with the supposed aim of clearing away the sand and dust that gathers in such areas (To be fair, it gathers everywhere). The street was a veritable river, and a big blob of wet sand was gathering in the gutter. Amazing. What a complete waste of water! Why not sweep the paving? The sand comes back, unerringly, indefatigably, every single day, because, what do you know, we live in the desert, and it's windy most of the time, and so the hired hand has to repeat this task every few days, just so that the poor Sirs and Madams don't have to walk in a bit of sand. Now I know where the 500 litres goes.

You really have to wonder, because every week or so there are grim warnings in the press about how the water is going to run out soon. There have been shortages already in some, less well-off areas (quelle surprise), and the rate of growth here just boggles the mind. Where do they get it all from, and how are they going to supply all these developments? Not just for human consumption, either. Most of these developments have water features - man-made lakes and lagoons and huge centre-piece fountains or waterfalls. It seems that most of the water here is desalinated. It is OK to drink, but everyone drinks spring water, which is sold cheaply in the supermarkets or delivered to your home if you have an office-style water-cooler. (I'd get one, but would worry about the WIFE and the KIDS congregating round it and gossiping about me). Apparently, there are underground fresh-water supplies, but they are being depleted at an alarming rate, so they say. I really hope that the people in charge know what they're doing here, because it could all go horribly wrong if they don't rein in the ridiculous levels of consumption, especially of the kind that is competely and utterly unnecessary. Come on, it is. I can't think of one defence for it.

A Gecko's Tail

We've just had a little visitor to our Villa. A tiny little gecko got in somehow and the WIFE let out a little yelp when she saw it scuttling around on the floor. Personally, reptiles are fine. Spiders are another matter. The WIFE tried to drop a plastic dish on top of it, but it managed to escape, leaving it's tail behind, which proceeded to lie there and twitch for a good minute or more. Bizarre! The WIFE thought she'd cut it off with the dish, but it transpires that this is the defense mechanism of a gecko, which they can use when they feel threatened. Mother Nature, I doff my cap, because it works. We were more interested in the still-moving tail than the little reptile. Meanwhile, Mr. Gecko was under the sofa. We finally manged to corner him when he re-emerged, and I scooped him up in a glass, took him outside and let the little chap go. Sorry for scaring you, and I hope your tail grows back OK!

Friday, September 15, 2006

Drunk and Dirty in Doha

Well, folks, I have now seen another place in the Middle East. On Wednesday I took the 7am flight from DXB to Doha, Qatar, for a meeting about the Big Hole in the Ground (which is supposed to turn into the Tallest Building in Doha). I was, as ever, over-cautious and boy-scoutish in my preparation, and got up at 4.15am to get to the airport. I arrived just after 5am and had a long, sleepy wait for the plane, taking in the delights of the crowded departure lounges (even at that time) and the crappy service at Costa (Bomb for a ) Coffee. The flight itself was only 45 minutes, about the same as Teesside (sorry, Durham Tees Valley) to Heathrow, if not shorter. Barely enough time to get nervous, but I still managed it.

I arrived in Doha at 7am, Qatar time. The passport control involved some brusque questioning about the nature of my visit and the payment of 55 Riyals by credit card. With time to kill, Costa bleeding packet was my only option, so I had another drink and sat there wondering what day it was and what my name was.

Eventually I got a taxi to the site office, which the taxi driver seemed unable to locate despite 20-foot-high hoardings bearing the name of the project being placed along the road we were driving along. On the way, I took in the delights of Doha, Qatar. It is much more Middle Eastern that Dubai (which isn't hard, frankly). There isn't anywhere near the amount of building work going on, even though they are busy preparing for the Asian Games which start in 2 months or so. There aren't half as many huge, over-designed buildings sprouting from every available scrap of land. There isn't as much neon. They still drive like maniacs, yes. There are lots more what you would call Arabic buildings there. They seem to be obsessed with a horned animal called an Oryx, and even have a cuddly animated version as a mascot for the games. The other local obsession seems to be pearls and oysters, with references galore in bar names, development titles and giant sculptures sitting in the middle of roundabouts. Oy, mate! Your Venus is missing!

And yet, and yet...the influence of Dubai is slowly coming to the fore. There are new building projects, including the one which I am involved in, and they are building a Pearl Island, rather than a Palm Island, just off the coast. It still has a lot of catching up to do, and I sincerely hope they reign this ambition in a bit, because if everywhere turns into Dubai, the whole Gulf region will turn into a giant Vegas wannabe. Who wants that?

Maybe some people do, actually, because the expat people I met there seemed to be somewhat bitter about the fact that they were in Doha rather than Dubai, which meant they had the choice of a handful of hotels and bars to frequent, and not much else. It was difficult not to feel smug about the fact that I was going back to Dubai. As it was, I ended up staying more time than I was meant to, because the meeting about the Big Hole in the Ground ended up spawning more meetings about the Big Hole in the Ground, and the client decided I was needed there the next day. Oh, joy. So they changed my flight and booked me into a well-known chain hotel.

I was given a lift to my hotel by the chain-smoking South African site QS, and then I had to spend an bizarre, exasperating 20 minutes in the hotel gift shop, buying a shirt and some socks and pants and the like. Another notable difference - there was airport style x-ray machinery and a metal detector to go through when I entered the hotel. Slightly disconcerting, to say the least. To me it said, "Western Hotels are potential targets". A bit like when I was in the USA and had to go through similar levels of security to enter a Social Security office.

So, a night was spent in this hotel, in the company of a few hardened expats, and we ate and drank heartily and talked about Big Holes in the Ground until my day caught up with me and I headed for my room, only for me to do what I always do in hotels and turn on the telly. I laid and watched The Fast Show on BBC Prime (a real gem of a channel for expats), then the first hour of the film Gladiator (which I've seen many times, but I still love it) on another channel, before my heavy eyes made it impossible to watch any more, and I gave in to my need for sleep.

Next day, after a leisurely breakfast and shower, I put on the ill-fitting clothes that I'd bought in the gift shop and jumped into another day of intrigue. Our meetings concluded quickly, and I was conveyed back to the airport where I watched the surprisingly busy Doha airport runway, where planes of all sizes took off and landed to and from various exotic locations, including Bahrain, Kuala Lumpur and Manchester. On boarding my plane I wondered why they were using an Airbus A340, which is a large plane for such a short flight, but it soon filled up, mainly with sub-continentals who seemed to have incredible trouble with taking the seat they were allocated. This, along with the late arrival of about another 50 people, meant we took off about 20 minutes late. Oh well.

I found myself glad to be back in Dubai. And despite the searching questions of the passport controller and the temporary loss of my car, I drove away feeling quite good about stuff. I even went back to the office for half an hour and caught up with the boss before he left for 2 weeks holiday in the UK. I'm worried about it all. I'm enjoying the job. I'd almost given up on QSing, but coming here has shown me that it can be (reasonably) exciting and dynamic, especially when you're dealing with jobs of this nature, and you get to jet round the region. I think I'm doing OK. The boss seems happy with me. Fingers crossed, or Insha'allah as they say here, it will continue!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Day Of The Camel

I finally saw my first live camels today on the way to work. I emerged from a bank of fog near the Nad Al Sheba racetrack and, having to slow down for the aftermath of yet another car crash, I caught sight of about 20 of these magnificent beasts trotting along the racetrack to my right, heading for their morning training.

I wasn't the only one to spot a camel or two. The WIFE went for a little drive today. She's getting brave now, and decided to venture outside of the relative safety of the Emirates Hills development, and head to the Ibn Battuta Shopping Mall, which is named after a famous Arabian traveller. The mall is themed around the various places he visited, with a Chinese court and an Indian court and so on. It is quite an interesting mall, as malls go, and has some educational displays to look at, and a full-size replica of a Chinese junk. It's also a lot quieter than the Mall of the Emirates.

Anyway, I digress. The WIFE managed to miss her turning from the Sheik Zayed Road, which I will attest to being an easy thing to do, and she ended up driving in the general direction of Abu Dhabi with a rising sense of panic. She phoned me from a petrol station, jabbering on about being in the middle of the desert and having nearly collided with a group of camels (what's the collective noun, I wonder?) and with a few calming words ("Calm down, you silly moo" didn't initially work, to be fair), she got the message that she had to turn off ASAP and head back for Dubai. She managed to do that, get to the mall, and get home in one piece. As I told her, it's all part of the experience of this place. The roads and signs are confusing and misleading and you can end up more lost than a group of sickeningly photogenic people who have crashed on a tropical island in no time at all. You can usually see the place you want to get to from the main road, but actually getting to it can be a real challenge unless you know the precise place names to look for and which and slip-road to take.

I got lost every day for my first week, which was infuriating, but ironically this helped me in the long run, because I got to know the names of places quite quickly and am now fairly comfortable with getting around, although it is still possible to take the wrong turning and end up in some dusty industrial estate.

Later today, there was some bad news about a friend I made early on during my time here. This chap had taken me under his wing, invited me for a beer, and had shown me some of the more "interesting" places in Dubai. He had also been good enough to rent the spare room in his lovely Villa in Jumeirah to me for a couple of weeks so I could get out of the crappy London Crown Hotel Apartments. Anyway, I hadn't heard from him, apart from one short e-mail, since I had moved into my Villa a couple of weeks ago, and so today at lunch I sent a text message to a mate of his asking if he was alright. The ominous message, "Call me" came back. Oh, bugger. The worst of worst things went through my mind, and when I rang up I found out that he had been dune-bashing in his Jeep last weekend and had managed to somersault the bloody thing over a dune and had broken his neck in 5 places. It had been touch-and-go as to whether he would be paralysed or not, but it seems he has been quite lucky and has just(!) broken the verterbrae in his neck, without damaging the spinal cord.

Apparently he is now resting up at home in a neck brace. Get well soon, mate!

Monday, September 11, 2006

Huuuu liyuvs inner plaice liyuk thus???

We do! Yep, that's our "Villa", in the Springs area of Emirates Hills, Dubai. At last I've got the hang of posting pictures. I managed to re-size it with some fancy software that I have on my new laptop because the original was taking up the whole bloody page! Now I'll be posting loads of photos.

There was even worse fog this morning. More people with hazards, and police everywhere for a bloody change, but they weren't doing anything worthwhile, all they were doing was directing (blocking) traffic on the roundabout near Springs where the Emirates Road meets Al Khail Road. Cray-zay!

Work was good again today. More meetings about massive amounts of monet and some really good heated discussions, which are always fun to watch. The weirdest bit about today was arriving at the meeting to hear a few of the local guys discussing the events of 5 years ago to the day (9/11). There were some bizarre and interesting theories being bandied about, and quite extreme differences of opinion on who or what was responsible and who or what was controlling those planes. It reminded me of when I worked in Northern Ireland and was in a meeting where they started blaming various paramilitary groups for this and that. Like today, I decided to keep quiet and listen with interest.

But, talking of work and (gulp) flying, I'm off to Doha on Wednesday. Should be interesting to see another bit of the Middle East, and possibly somewhere a bit more "real" than Dubai.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

It was like watching a car crash

Except, I missed the actual crash. On the way home tonight, I saw the aftermath of another accident on the roads of Dubai, which involved an ambulance and a couple of cars just off a roundabout on the Al Khail Road (which is supposed to be safer than the Sheik Zayed Road), one of which was on its roof. Cars were slowing right down for a good ghoulish gawp, and there were no police anywhere to be seen. No lanes were closed off at all. It was the same with a lorry that had over-turned, again on a roundabout on the AK road, that I saw the other day. No wonder people drive like they do here. You hardly see any police on the road, so the chances of enforcing the rules (which aren't that great, it is not actually illegal to tailgate here) are both slim and fat at the same time. The driving here would make even Jeremy Clarkson cringe, I'm sure.

Strange thing, that. Slim chance and fat chance both mean pretty much the same thing....

Anyway, I found myself actually looking forward to going to work today. Crazy shit, I know. The particular job I'm working on is a huge one in Qatar, but it's made more interesting by the fact that the project has gone totally tits-up. The meetings don't send me to sleep for a change, they actually grab my attention. It helps that there are about 10 different nationalities around the table. I really have to pay attention to what people are saying, and sit in wonder as a Scotsman talks to a Yemeni, and then a Frenchman interjects, before a Scouser starts telling everyone to simmer down. I admit I came here with something of a preconception about the Arabs and the way they do business, but the ones I've dealt with so far are cool customers, who don't mind having a bit of banter with you. I thought they'd be aloof and business-like to a T. I do wish they wouldn't break into Arabic now and again, though. It's like they're talking about you. "Did you hear what that fat English dick-head just said?" "Yeah! Idiot. I can't believe we're paying for these freaks!"

Ah, such is life, and soon the weather will get better, or so we have been told, and we can get out of the buildings and get some fresh dust, I mean air. But this morning, I woke to an alarming sight: overcast skies. I thought I'd dreamt the last 5 weeks and was back in blighty. I drove to work in a misty, sunless void, surrounded by petrified locals with their hazard lights flashing. What's that all about? If anything out of the ordinary happens, the hazards go on. And when the hazards go on, the driver is suddenly exempt from all rules of the road, and becomes invisible and impervious to all external influences. This is especially the case when they double park and block everyone else behind them. I'm not really here! I can do anything I want!

And so, we've come full circle, at full speed around this roundabout to driving in the UAE. It's like a fairground, I tell thee....

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Fairground Attraction

Yes, I realise that I've posted twice and that both have fairground analogies. You know why though, don't you? It's because this place really is like Disneyland for adults.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

They're Here!

Not the Magic Camels of Nad Al Sheba, or the Mystical Maniacs of Sheik Zayed Road - no, my family! Woo-hoo.

I tell you what, though, what a bloody going on getting them in the country. It took almost 2 hours for them to get from the plane to meeting me. Sheesh. And with the phones not working, we were unable to communicate, so I must have turned about 4 different colours while I was stood waiting for them.

Anyway, they're here now, and it's like a whole other chapter of our lives has begun. The chapter involving my time alone in this crazy city is over, and now the chapter with my family begins. I hope that they like it. They seem to be getting into it. The BOY is taking to his new school like a duck to hoi sin sauce. The GIRL couldn't care as long as she gets her dose of mind-numbing kids TV and regular food. The WIFE is just bamboozled, trying to learn how to drive on the wrong side of the car and the wrong side of the bloody road, surrounded by fecking eejits.

And then work kicks off big style. It would do, this week, wouldn't it? I've kind of been sitting on the sidelines up until now, like a spectator watching a really fast and scary ride at the fairground, such as the waltzer. Now I've suddenly been pushed onto the ride and getting spun round as fast as possible by the biggest, hairiest, tattoo-adorned gypsy you've ever seen. Wa-hey! This is fun! You see, the jobs over here are just immense. All these piddly little buildings back in the UK I used to work on are just small fry, like the kiddies rollercoaster shaped like some Caterpillar with a drugs habit. This work is like the Oblivion and the Nemesis at Alton Towersrolled into one, followed by a kick in the bollocks by Roy Keane for good measure. You stop to look at the figures on the page, and realise that you're shuffling around 100s of millions of pounds. Best not to think too much about it, really.

So, onwards and upwards. I just hope to the heavens above that my health holds out here. My heart arrhythmia has had a couple of moments so far, but I think I know how to control it. The downside is, I can't drink too much. The upside is, it will save me money. But then again, maybe it won't. I'll just eat more. Friday brunch tomorrow! Yippee!